By Kyle LoJacono
When Steinbrenner High started practice a few months ago two things were made clear. The Warriors would be in shape and would have to earn their spot each week.
“I work them very hard at practice,” said Steinbrenner boys tennis coach Darren Atkinson, who spent five years as a professional tennis player. “You have to be in great shape to win those key points in close matches.
“I also try and foster competition in the team,” Atkinson continued. “When one player tries to run faster the others should all take note and try and get faster themselves. That lets the players know they need to stay sharp all the time and be on their toes.”
That mentality of continuously earning a position on the team led to a recent shakeup of the Warriors’ team rankings. Junior Jared Gordon-Martin started the year as the team’s No. 1 player, but Luke Blankenship recently took over that position.
“It’s very competitive on the team, but I don’t think much of the rankings,” Blankenship, sophomore, said. “Whoever wins the spot should have it. Whoever is best that day should lead the team. We still have great team chemistry despite constantly pushing each other.”
Blankenship, who has been playing tennis for seven years, attended Bishop McLaughlin Catholic last year.
“Luke earned the spot by beating Jared in a challenge match about three weeks ago,” Atkinson said March 18. “I told them whoever wins takes over the No. 1 spot. Luke won so it’s his spot now.”
In high school, tennis players are ranked one through seven or eight depending on the team’s size. The first five players play against the opposing team’s first five and then the squads play two doubles matches. Whoever takes the most matches wins.
Atkinson coached at Gaither last season and one of the Cowboys joined him at the first-year school this year.
“The practices this year have been a lot tougher than last year at Gaither,” said sophomore Preston West. “We didn’t make the regional tournament last year so I guess coach wanted to make sure we were prepared to make it to the playoffs this year.”
Preston’s younger brother Blake is also on the team.
The workouts and the Warriors’ mindset have produced a 7-2 start in their first nine matches this season. Steinbrenner has also started its first season 7-0 in Class 2A, District 10, which includes Blake, Jesuit, Lennard, Middleton, Robinson, Spoto and Strawberry Crest.
“My expectation level has been met so far, but we haven’t exceeded it,” Atkinson said. “I have a very high expectation level and I think we can do even better. We are the first place team in the district right now and I want to stay there.”
That attitude has been accepted by the players.
“I like coach Atkinson’s style a lot,” said Paul Bikowitz, who played at Sickles last season. “He tells it like it is and doesn’t try and sugarcoat things like a lot of people do. He tells you what you’re doing wrong and what you need to do to fix it.”
Being upfront with the players is one of Atkinson’s trademarks.
“I’m brutally honest with them,” Atkinson said. “They need to know what they are doing wrong so they can work on it. That goes for practice as well as matches because you need to practice perfect to get better in tennis. Just practicing can make things a lot worse if it isn’t perfect.”
While tennis is considered a team sport in high school, the players work more on their own during matches. This fact can make it difficult to bring a team together, but Steinbrenner has been able to overcome the potential problem.
“The kids started competing against each other, but now it’s more like they work together to get better,” said assistant Bill West, who is the father of Preston and Blake. “Going through the tough practices have brought them together. They are always in good spirits and have great camaraderie.”
The Warriors have numerous wins under their belts, but one stood out.
“The biggest win for me was when we beat Jesuit,” Blankenship said. “They won the district last year and have a very good team. Everyone battled in their matches and it let us know we can hang with anyone.”
Steinbrenner is at the top of the district now, but things can change fast in tennis.
“This game is physical chess,” Atkinson said. “It’s physical, but if you’re not right between the ears you won’t win. We have to make sure we don’t start thinking we’re better than we are and keep working all the time. We have to keep working on our weaknesses and constantly improve.”
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